Syrians hope for talks to halt exodus

31 January 2014

REUTERS

Salvage operation: residents collect their belongings near a damaged church in Qusair, on Saturday

Salvage operation: residents collect their belongings near a damaged church in Qusair, on Saturday

A SUCCESSFUL outcome to the Geneva 2 negotiations on Syria, which began last week, is vital if the flood of Christians out of the country is to be halted, Christian leaders from the country say.

The Revd Dr Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian who was brought up in Homs and is a former head of the Middle East Council of Churches, told Fox News this week: "If the Geneva talks do not result in a peaceful resolution that will end the violence and end the war in Syria, more Christians will be internally displaced, and more of them will be seeking refuge outside Syria."

"Now Christian people don't feel comfortable any more," Dr Jarjour said. In many places, radical Islamic groups had taken control, destroying churches and creating areas where there were no longer any Christians to be found.

Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak, of the Syrian Orthodox Church, also urged those attending the Geneva talks to find a way of ending the conflict while there was still a Christian community in Syria: "At the beginning of the crisis, we didn't encounter a real problem against Christians, but nowadays Christians are being targeted."

Whether a comprehensive accord to bring peace to Syria can be reached in Geneva remains to be seen. While widespread satisfaction was expressed over the successful convening of the Switzerland negotiations, after months of diplomatic setbacks, the first indications were that progress towards resolving the multi-layered crisis would be, at best, very slow.

The first direct meeting produced one positive result: an agreement to allow women and children to leave Homs, which has been besieged by government forces since June 2012, and for a corridor for humanitarian relief supplies to be opened up. But the deal was not immediately implemented as promised - there were a number of security issues still to be overcome, the Syrian government said.

President Obama's administration joined opposition leaders in criticising the Homs agreement as inadequate, saying that it should apply to all civilians, not just women and children, and begin without delay. "The situation is desperate, and the people are starving," a US State Department spokesman said on Monday. "There should be no reason for delay. The regime must act now."

On Tuesday, the Geneva talks ran into serious difficulties when the question of a transitional government was raised by the veteran UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. The Syrian government's set of principles failed to mention the transition process, as outlined in Geneva 1. Instead, the government concentrated on the need to remove "terrorists" - the Damascus authorities' term for opposition fighters - from Syrian soil and end the West's backing of them. By midday, the talks had been adjourned in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination.

Little has happened so far to raise the spirits of Syrian Christians listening and watching for any sign of progress in Geneva. But they received some good news at the weekend, in the form of confirmation that the group of 12 nuns taken away by Islamist gunmen from their convent in Maaloula, north of Damascus, last December (News, 13 December), are alive and well in the nearby town of Yabroud.

Patriarch John X of Antioch & All the East told reporters in Beirut: "The nuns are fine. I personally spoke to them over the phone a few days ago." But he said that it was "not enough for us to know they are OK. We hope they will be released soon, along with the two kidnapped bishops."

The Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Mar Yohanna Ibrahim and the Most Revd Paul Yazigi, were seized in northern Syria last April, and have not been seen since (News, 31 May).

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